Speech by Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Adjournment Motion: A more inclusive workplace for breastfeeding mothers.
Mdm, my wife and I know how difficult it is to breastfeed. All three of my daughters, Ella, Katie and Poppy were breastfed until they were about two years old.
My wife and I are part of a growing number of Singaporeans, who have chosen breastfeeding because it increases mother-child bonding and improves the health of both infant and mother.
That said, my speech today is not about why breastfeeding is good. Indeed, some mothers cannot or choose not to breastfeed, and we should respect them all the same.
Instead, my speech is about how the government can support mothers who choose to breastfeed.
Shaming and discrimination
Let me start by sharing stories from the workplace. Many many stories because so many mothers spoke up pleading for help and calling for change.
Mdm, the challenges of expressing milk at work is one of the top three reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding. This is based on a local survey of close to 1,000 mothers, conducted by the Breastfeeding Mothers Support Group Singapore earlier this year.
There is one consistent theme in the stories: shame and discrimination.
So many mothers told me they were asked to go to the toilet to express their milk.
One mother shared, “I told my management that I’m ok with pumping at my desk using a wearable pump and a nursing cover. But they told me that it is inappropriate because there are many guys in office, and asked me to use the toilet to pump instead”.
Another said, “I was told to use the handicap toilet and couldn’t pump at my desk as my colleagues didn’t like the sound of the pump”.
Similarly, another mother’s workplace did not have a room for her to pump milk, so she asked to do so within her own cubicle. Even though she acted as discreetly as she could have, her colleagues dissuaded her from continuing because it was “distracting” to them.
One mother shared that she wasn’t even allowed to pump under a nursing cover in the meeting room.
Another had to pump inside a cubicle with no fan. “I was sweating like mad”, she said.
Mdm Lee who was a business development executive for a medical product company told me that she had to use the storeroom for product samples as a lactation room. To gain a little privacy, she asked for a foldable curtain. But even this small request was not entertained.
Another mother said, “I used a meeting room which had glass doors, so I had to pump in a blind spot”.
Some mothers are also made to feel bad, one shared “My bosses kept making remarks about how formula milk is not worse than breastmilk, and made snide remarks when I took time off to pump”.
Some endure physical pain because they are unable to find time to pump. A teacher shared with me, “It was very common to find myself and colleagues pumping blooded milk out because we had to endure through extended hours of lessons”.
Sir, these stories are heart-breaking because these mothers are only trying to feed their child.
The irony is that their employers speak of productivity, but failing to pump milk is, in fact, a major distraction for many mothers.
When a breastfeeding mother fails to pump at the right time, their breasts can become swollen and create sharp, burning pains. It can even cause infections.
Some mothers are in a double whammy. Pump the milk, and be accused of inefficiency. Don’t pump the milk, and actually become inefficient due to the pain and stress. They just can’t win.
In spite of these challenges, more mothers have taken to breastfeeding. For exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, the rate has increased from 1% in 2011 to a reported 38.2% in 2019. This is a tremendous 38 folds in less than a decade.
We need to do right by them. In this speech, I will outline two things they need at their workplaces: space and time. They need more lactation rooms, and they need paid lactation breaks.
Need for lactation rooms
Let me start with my first proposal: increase the number of lactation rooms required in buildings that contain offices and business parks.
Dedicated lactation rooms are the best way to facilitate breastfeeding. Today, too many mothers are forced to use undignified spaces like toilets or storerooms. Such mixed-use spaces are often dirty or disruptive, and the stress can block mothers from expressing milk.
As I shared earlier, some mothers try their best to adapt and pump at their workstation and continue working while they are pumping.
Mdm Yang did this and shared with me at a dialogue session a few months ago, about the stress of pumping milk in places where others can watch. Some days the stress prevented her from expressing more than 10 to 20ml of milk even after half an hour of pumping. Not enough, she said.
Mdm, I wish I can show everyone here right now how difficult it is to pump with breast pumps while concurrently working. I would if I could, but I cannot because I obviously cannot breastfeed. More importantly, I promised I wouldn’t do any live demonstration during this speech and I intend to keep the promise. But Mdm, don’t just believe my words and the stories I’ve shared. The data backs up these stories.
According to the local survey by the Breastfeeding Mothers Support Group Singapore, eight in ten working mothers say one of the things they most need is a lactation room.
I do understand that many employers face both financial and physical space constraints in terms of providing a lactation room, especially SMEs.
This was a point that SMS Amy Khor made four years ago and I agree with her. She said, “we can encourage building owners and developers to set up common family and nursing rooms that their tenants can access and utilise”.
As such, the call today is for building owners to provide the lactation rooms and we really have to go beyond just encouraging building owners to provide this.
To really help breastfeeding mothers, the government has to mandate the provision of more lactation rooms in buildings that have offices and business parks.
Currently, MND requires only one lactation room for such buildings if they have a gross floor area of 10,000 sqm or more. We should lower this threshold so more buildings are required to have a lactation room.
And it’s not just about having one room. It’s about having enough rooms.
So many mothers have shared stories about rushing to a lactation room during their lunch break only to find that another mother is already using it.
One mother told me that she would sometimes only have five minutes left for her own lunch after expressing her milk.
Feed yourself or feed the child? Mdm, no mother in Singapore should have to make this decision.
It is also clear that buildings with more occupants have higher needs. We should require larger buildings, those with a higher gross floor area, to have more than one lactation room.
MND has said that the gross floor area threshold is a base guideline meant to strike a balance between needs and the efficient use of space, and that some buildings go beyond these requirements.
Indeed as SMS Zaqy Mohamad shared when we debated this issue two years ago, MND itself has two lactation rooms in the MND HQ within the floors they occupied while MOM has five in its two office buildings.
I appreciate the Government going above and beyond for its employees. But what about all the women not working for the Government?
I also understand MND’s point about having to use space efficiently. But we have always known that efficiency must be balanced against safety.
In the UK, the issue of breastfeeding at work is considered a matter of workplace health and safety. Employers there cannot ask a breastfeeding mother to pump in unhygienic environments such as the toilet.
We must work towards a similar safety standard for our nursing mothers.
In its next review of the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment, will MND consider lowering the gross floor area threshold so that more buildings with offices and business parks will be required to have a lactation room?
Will MND also consider increasing the number of lactation rooms required for larger buildings containing offices and business parks?
Need for lactation breaks
My second proposal is that we legislate paid lactation breaks.
Expressing milk takes time. On average, a session takes 20 to 30 minutes.
But the problem is many women simply do not have time at work to express milk. In the survey conducted by the Breastfeeding Mothers Support Group Singapore, two-thirds of working mothers had this problem. Most of them also said they could not express milk as much as they had wanted during work.
Some mothers try to find time by multi-tasking. But even that comes with its risks. Mdm Yap told me that milk started leaking from her hands-free pump when she was talking to a co-worker.
The risks of not having dedicated time to breastfeed goes beyond some embarrassing spillage.
As I stressed earlier, the breasts of nursing mothers become infected and painful when milk is not expressed regularly. Over time, such irregularity also leads to a permanent decrease in milk that the mothers can supply. Mothers are worse off, and so are their children.
Laws that guarantee paid breastfeeding breaks are not new or uncommon.
A 2020 report on 97 countries found that 73% of the countries had laws for paid breastfeeding breaks. Singapore is in the minority of countries that do not provide this. Why?
I raised this at the recent COS debates and MOS Gan replied that the need to build mutual understanding and trust between employers and employees is why Singapore does not take a legislative approach for workplace practices such as mandatory breastfeeding breaks.
But taking a legislative approach is not mutually exclusive with building trust and encouraging employers. We already legislate a whole slew of protections for our workers.
In addition, legislation can spark cultural change. One of the biggest challenges is that many employers simply do not think about breastfeeding at all.
Legislating paid lactation breaks can spark a broader conversation about how expressing milk can be normalised and supported at the workplace.
Some might say that flexible work arrangements (FWAs) are becoming more prevalent and that will solve the problem of insufficient breastfeeding time.
Indeed, FWAs are a good thing for breastfeeding mothers. It has been reported that work-from-home during the pandemic enabled mothers to breastfeed longer and more comfortably than when they worked in the office.
But work-from-home is not an option for all mothers. Many still work in the office, and many more have returned to the office in recent months. We cannot leave these mothers hanging, and they still need our support.
To support mothers at their workplaces, will the government consider introducing legislation to mandate the provision of paid breaks specifically for breastfeeding?
Role of nursing mothers in the workforce
Before I conclude, I want to pre-empt one point. Some may question whether lactation rooms and nursing breaks are a good use of resources.
But we should be clear: breastfeeding mothers are a valuable part of our workforce.
Already, 20% of women of working age are not in the labour force, as Minister Tan See Leng said at the recent COS debates, “There are vacancies across all occupational levels with varied qualifications and needs which could potentially be filled by this group”.
For breastfeeding mothers who do want to return to work, surely we can do more to ease their transition back into the workforce.
Minister Tan also shared that, “in order to tap on this segment of our population, businesses will need to consider how the jobs they offer can be more flexible and attractive to locals”.
Businesses can help but the government can too. Having a more inclusive workplace and providing more support for breastfeeding mothers might make it easier for breastfeeding mothers to re-enter or remain in the workforce.
Without a doubt, one of the barriers for many mothers is the lack of time and space to produce milk to feed their children.
My proposals today are about providing those things. And don’t just take it from me.
The many mothers I’ve spoken to and the many mothers surveyed by the Breastfeeding Mothers Support Group Singapore say the same.
NTUC has said that the provision of lactation breaks and lactation rooms does support breastfeeding mothers at the workplace.
AWARE, which published a report last year based on feedback from pregnant women and female caregivers, said the same, and emphasised that legislation is needed for those practices to become widespread.
Mdm, we need to do more for nursing mothers and do more urgently.
I would like to end this speech by acknowledging the significant progress made over the years.
MHA has clarified that breastfeeding in public is unlikely to constitute offenses of indecent exposure or appearing nude in public.
MOT has made clear that breastfeeding is allowed on buses and trains and that the government will provide nursing rooms at all new bus interchanges and integrated transport hubs, as well as new MRT interchange stations.
MOE has said that it is committed to providing a conducive workplace for nursing mothers and will ensure that all primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges/centralised institutes have a dedicated lactation room.
MOE also shared that all Institutes of Higher Learning, the Autonomous Universities, Polytechnics and ITEs are already equipped with lactation facilities.
NTUC’s Women and Family Unit, HPB and the Singapore National Employers Federation also have an employer’s guide to breastfeeding at the workplace that provides employers with information on what they can do to support employees to continue breastfeeding after returning to work.
The government has even provided grants to build lactation rooms.
I thank all the Ministries and organisations for their hard work, but we can and must go further.
To this end, the Breastfeeding Mothers’ Support Group Singapore has done incredible work in supporting breastfeeding mothers.
Members of the group have shared with me this sentiment, “Right now, breastfeeding is tolerated. I hope we move towards embracing rather than tolerating breastfeeding.”
I too hope that we can review our laws so that we embrace rather than just tolerate breastfeeding.
First, we need to increase the number of lactation rooms available to working mothers. The gross floor area threshold needs to be lowered so more buildings are required to have lactation rooms. The minimum number of lactation rooms also needs to be increased for larger buildings.
Second, we need to join the majority of countries and introduce legislation to provide paid lactation breaks.
Finally Sir, I end with this quote that I hope expresses the wishes of our breastfeeding mothers:
Not because I think I am better.
Not because I think less of formula feeding moms.
Not because I want attention.
Not because I want to show my breast to others.
Because I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Because my child wants to be nourished from me.
Because this is what nature intended.
Because this was the right choice for my family.”
Watch the full speech here.